Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

Meetings With Remarkable Men, Part 1

Last time out, I wrote a bit about the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound, and a little about the circumstances surrounding it. It’s something I’m thinking quite a bit now as I’m preparing a book on how it came to be and how it worked. I had come to know quite a lot about it at the time owing to a natural interest, as well as some encounters with some of the people responsible for it. I’d like to describe a couple of events in my life as they occurred in the years that lead up to that time.

I started playing bass in March of 1970, right around the time it became known that the Fabs had split. But that wasn’t such a major event to me at the time (in hindsight, though perfectly normal, it was HUGE). I bought that bass, an Egmond, made in the Netherlands, with $60 I had gotten for my bar mitzvah a month before. I had also received two Jefferson Airplane albums, including the stunning Crown of Creation. Up until I heard them at length, I was vacillating about what I wanted to play, piano or bass. But when I heard Crown, I knew.

I wanted to be Jack Casady. And if I couldn’t BE him, I had to be as good. That had been my way, to identify the person that I thought set the standard of excellence, and realize that to do it properly, I had to be that good too. When I aspired to be an illustrator, Jim Steranko was it. Playing bass? It was Jack Casady — and I had begun the process of choosing music over visual art.

A Steranko illustration. Don’t hold that whole SHIELD thing against him.

I wanted to be Jack Casady. And if I couldn’t BE him, I had to be as good. That had been my way, to identify the person that I thought set the standard of excellence, and realize that to do it properly, I had to be that good too. When I aspired to be an illustrator, Jim Steranko was it. Playing bass? It was Jack Casady — and I had begun the process of choosing music over visual art.

So the next time Casady played in Philadelphia (I grew up across the river in NJ), in January of 1971, I had to be there. It was the first real tour of electric Hot Tuna; they were going to play at the Academy of Music, the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, at Locust and Broad. It was a mid-19th century opera house with three balconies and a huge chandelier hanging over the audience. I would see a lot of music there over the next few years, from Pentangle (on their last tour) to Andres Segovia with my folks.

Brewer and Shipley opened the show, hot on the heels of their hit, “One Toke Over the Line”.  They were excellent. Hot Tuna had five people; besides Jack and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, there was fiddler “Papa” John Creach, drummer Sammy Piazza, and harmonica-player Will Scarlett. But I really only had eyes for Jack, and his second, heavily-modified Guild Starfire bass, and though I couldn’t really identify the amps, he had pretty big cabinets with JBL D-140 speakers in them. When he soloed on “Candy Man”, it was like hearing a big piano. Even now, over 46 years later, I can play much of the solo. It was that iconic.

I recall that he looked like the very definition of a “freak”, in the hippie sense — dressed head-to-toe in leather and fringe, with knee-high lace-up boots and a flat-brimmed black hat. I don’t recall pre-meditating this, but when the concert was over, I wouldn’t leave. With my friends Pete and Glenn, I resolved to wait outside the stage door for a chance to talk to him. And sure enough, through the windows of the room inside the door, in he came — wearing what he wore on stage.

The be-fringed freak hisownself.

Lesson 1: mean it. Don’t do on stage what you’re unwilling to do off stage. This wasn’t small, for a 14-year-old living in New Jersey.

The band’s equipment was being loaded out through the stage door –– pretty loudly — and after a few minutes, Jack wandered out. This was my moment. I went up to him and squeaked out, “Hey, man, can I talk to you?”

Jack appeared to just walk away, but he looked back over his shoulder and indicated for me to follow. He walked a few feet up Locust Street towards Broad Street, towards where a limousine was idling, leaned on the hood, and… we talked.

All these years later, I can’t recall a LOT about meeting my idol. But I do know that he was open to whatever I wanted to discuss, we had a short laugh about Grand Funk Railroad, and that he saved me an enormous amount of frustration and struggle in a few minutes. The main takeaway for me was, don’t sweat the gear.

Jack’s infamous Guild bass.

I mean, yeah, sure, sweat it — but realize its limitations. I asked him about playing chords. He asked how I did it. I described it, he said that sounds right and asked what gear I used. I told him. It was all beginner’s equipment: a recently-acquired Hagstrom 8-string (strung back then as a 4; I still have it), and borrowed Ace Tone amp (while I waited for my father to finish building my first amp). I hadn’t even been playing for a year. The sound I heard when I played a chord just lay there, fuzzed out.

Jack said, effectively, he had the best equipment in the world, all built for him or modified to his standards. The sound I was hearing was the sound of everything being overdriven just perfectly by the 3-note chord. Hearing him say that, I knew not to blame myself.

All I had to do was grow up.