Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

Meetings With Remarkable Men, Part 2

I wasn’t much of a Grateful Dead fan at first.

A neighbor said I should come to his house to hear Workingman’s Dead, and I thought it was OK. The next year, 1971, when Grateful Dead  came out, I liked that quite a bit more (I particularly dug the rhythm guitar’s sound and approach).

The Dead avoided Philly, it was said, over some problem with the Electric Factory, which promoted all the shows. Whatever the truth of it, the band booked into our local hockey rink, the Spectrum (“home” of the Philadelphia Flyers), on September 21st of 1972.

They put out Europe ’72 right around that time. I think I went to the show first, and then got the live, 3-LP set. Now I was convinced. I still am — the album is a perfect set of mostly new songs in the style for which they’d become known, mostly by Garcia and Hunter, including a lot of their group improvisations, and, I was later to learn, studio-tracked vocals[1].

It wasn’t unusual to see bands with custom equipment back then, since a number of industries were just being formed. But the Dead clearly had something else going on; somebody somewhere was obviously masterminding their approach, and having now seen Hot Tuna 2 or 3 times, it was obvious that it was probably the same people. For one thing, their instruments were well beyond anything you would find in my Guild, Gibson or Fender catalogs, and their speaker cabinets all had tie-dyed grilles on them, the same thing I had noticed at Hot Tuna shows. (Add that to the amazing instrument that Jack Casady had started to play, and well… something was clearly afoot in San Francisco!)

Shortly after this, my father died. I was 15, the youngest of three. I have two brothers, one of whom is 10 years older and lives in the Bay area. A different kind of pressure fell on each of us. The following summer, my mother determined that I should take a break and go out to stay with him for a while. I was between 10th and 11th grades. There are pivotal moments in all of our lives, but they were coming fast at this time in life. One was about to happen.

I’d just gotten my first Guild Starfire, a sunburst ’67 SF-I for $175, bought sight-unseen from a guy at the Berklee College of Music. I was ecstatic about it, but also somehow disappointed — I didn’t sound like Jack Casady. I’d seen a Guild M-85, otherwise known as a Bluesbird, and thought, “Hmmm – maybe that’s what I need!” On a Grey Line bus tour of Monterey, I wandered off by myself, went into an instrument store, and saw a Guitar Player magazine with an article listed on the cover, “The Dead’s Gear”. It was an interview with Rick Turner, all about Alembic –– this is the first moment I’d heard of them, but these are the craftsmen I’d been wondering about.

The next day I hopped the train into the city, looked up Alembic in a phone book[2] and invited myself over. They were very nice people. I asked a bunch of questions, but Rick Turner wasn’t there. I was told he was on his way back from a crafts fair in Bolinas, where he was showing the first Alembic “standard” guitar and bass and to wait for him, he knows all. There were speaker cabinets with tie-dyed grilles all over the place — just like the Dead’s PA system — and instruments of all sorts hanging up. The very first instrument visible was a blond M-85, with an insane inlay and no strings. I was in love and lust and asking everyone there about it. A nice guy named Sparky Raizeine told me it belonged to his boss and he believed it was for sale. “Who’s your boss?” I asked. He said, “Phil Lesh.” And I thought, “Oh, shit. Well, that’s that.”

Rick arrived — he couldn’t be nicer and treated me not at all like some kind of geeky long-haired teenager from New Jersey. On the contrary, he was excited that there was bass player in the shop (3 & 1/2 years already – I was real good!); he had a bass he wanted people to play and give him feedback on. Plus, while I was waiting for him, everybody there was excited because the first JBL K151 18” speaker in San Francisco arrived — they mounted it in a cabinet they had waiting and wanted to hear it. I was handed the bass, plugged into F2-B preamp, Mac 2100 and the K-151 in sealed box and told “Go, man! Let’s hear it!”

I was so stunned by the tone — the evenness, the roundness and fullness — that I didn’t even have a moment to feel on the spot. My second thought was, “So much for my Starfire…” I’m sure I gave him no useful feedback.

Eventually I got around to asking Rick about the M-85; he told me that Phil wanted to sell it when he put some kind of wiring back in it. How much? “Oh, probably $1000.” Imagine $1000 then to a 16 year old. I wander off, my head in the clouds.

Come September, I was back in NJ and the Dead were playing Philly. I followed the seats of the hockey rink back around the stage to look at the gear closer up. I saw Sparky on the stage and yelled hello. He recognized me, and asked, “Did you ever get your bass?” I told him I was working on it and asked to come up there, and he actually brought me onto the stage. (Yes, I stopped for a moment to appreciate where I was.) We searched around in different cases looking for Phil’s even-more-than-Jack’s-highly-modified Starfire, but no luck. He said, “Come back between sets”. I tried but stupidly went across the floor and never got there (although once I broke free from the floor I went running up the arms of the chairs, slipped and cracked my sternum). After the show I went back there again, and he invited me back again and took me backstage to meet Phil, who was leaning on a limo with two very buzzed teenage girls, all giggles. (But did I let that stop me? Hah!)

So I walked up, introduced myself and started throwing all kinds of questions about active electronics at him: What does he think of this idea or that idea? This probably only lasted a couple minutes — he had some serious shit going on and I knew better than to wear out my welcome. As I walked away I threw a question back at him: “Hey! Whaddaya gonna do with that Guild Bluesbird bass hanging up at Alembic?” He called back: “I can’t use it anymore. They can have it. You can have it if you want it!” “For free?” He says “Yeah! I’ll give it you!” I just laughed and left the arena. My friends were waiting for me outside the arena, and it suddenly hit me — I said, “I think Phil Lesh just gave me a bass…” The next day I sent a letter to the Dead Heads P.O. Box, and one to Rick, telling him what happened, admitting I’m embarrassed to bring it up but maybe Phil meant it, and I’d be dumb not to look into it.

About that same time, Rolling Stone ran a small feature called “Alembic: Sound Wizards to the Grateful Dead”, in which the people I had “discovered” were outed internationally, with an interview with Rick. And four months later, a very cold, very gray, January afternoon, I got a letter with the Alembic logo on it. It was from Rick, telling me that he talked to Phil and yes, it’s mine (MINE!!) — but Phil wanted me to come get it, rather than it being shipped to me.

This all resulted in some serious ostracizing for a bit. First of all, I came back from San Francisco, the first of us ever to go the mecca, yammering about Alembic to every musician I knew. “Olympic? What?” Then I told a few close friends that winter about the letter from Rick, and all of South Jersey having recently converted to Deadheads, it spread like fire and everybody thought I was lying. In the meantime, I tried (and probably failed!) to keep from calling there too often.

But eventually I got a call from Rick. It was ready. My brother was coming east on business and Rick thought that was OK – him handing it to my brother was the same to him as me flying out and him handing it to me. It was Memorial Day weekend and I was on a canoe trip up the Delaware, but when I got back Sunday night — there it was. Beautiful. Mine. My brother said me that Jack Casady was in the shop when he went to pick it up and said, “I hope you’ll be playing that around here — that’s a seriously karma-laden bass.”

I later discovered that this was the instrument that Alembic came together over. Rick had met the Dead, his partner Ron Wickersham, all under the aegis of Bear, when Lesh commissioned the fingerboard inlay from Rick. And according to Ron Wickersham, quoted in the book on the Dead’s gear, it’s also the first active bass (an active instrument is just as it sounds, an instrument with some of the pre-amplification circuitry built in) .

As I started using it I discovered why Phil gave it up. Gorgeous yes, but not as great sounding amplified as acoustically. But it was my fretless and I used it like that for many years — and loved it. (In hindsight I think it was hampered by the lack of decent short-scale strings that we suffered through in the 70’s and 80’s. All my short-scale basses went into retirement until the 90’s.)

In ’88, Rick was working at Gibson here in L.A. I handed it to him and said, “Rick – make this thing be what we know it can be please.” Two years later, he called and left a message: “Well, 21 years I’ve been working on this thing, but it finally works!”

The first thing he did was remove the pickups (they are both now in my original sunburst Starfire) so it could come alive acoustically. Then he dumped the bridge/tailpiece. He devised a new tailpiece/bridge with his own piezo pickups as the saddles, and came up with a new string, a giant classical guitar string, non-magnetic, with a nylon core and bronze winding. Judge the sound for yourself: it’s half of the Tuesday Night Music Club album, it’s most audible on “We Do What We Can”. And I used it on “I Was Watching You” on Rosanne Cash’s album, and on the Tonight Show with her.

 

 

And I’ve finally learned how to play that Starfire as well.

Addendum:

When I think back on that time, it’s astonishing to think of the events of that year: my visit to Alembic, the two Rolling Stone pieces, the gift of the bass, the Dead Head newsletter spelling out the intention behind their new sound system, and finally, the sound system itself. It was difficult to not feel involved — and if I hadn’t been a Dead Head before, I was one now.

 

[1] They did what many artists do, which is to record the vocals again in the studio, but with a difference. They set up the gear again in the Alembic studio, as if it were onstage, and ran the output of the separate tracks to their respective amps. They then recorded in front of it, to get an “accurate” bleed into the mics.

[2] Yes! A phone book!