Philadelphia Inquirer DAILY MAGAZINE: September 10, 1990

No mere Deadhead, he's the Grateful Dead's musical historian

By David W. Major

Special to the Inquirer


When David Gans returned home from an afternoon swim on July 26 to learn that Grateful Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland was dead, he had to work quickly. As host of the Grateful Dead Hour, a lifeline of music to Deadheads nationwide, Gans realized that the radio listeners would have questions.

His response, as always, was to let the music give the answers.

Operating from the studio in his Oakland, Calif., home, where he assembles the broadcast each week, Gans tapped the Well, a California-based computer network popular among Deadheads, to find out about favorite Mydland performances suitable for broadcasting. Next he arranged phone interviews with John Barlow, Dan Healy and Eileen Law of the Grateful Dead's staff. Later, while digging through his extensive archive of Grateful Dead music and interviews with band members, Gans came across a 1985 talk with Mydland - and still more music.

Within 24 hours, through a compilation of interviews, music and reminiscences, Gans had assembled a touching three broadcast tribute to the keyboardist, who had died of a drug overdose. The series helped temper the shock of Mydland's death and renewed hope among Deadheads that the Dead would continue - as they will this evening at the Spectrum, in tbe first of three Philadelphia performances.

"The show just sort of assembled itself," Gans, 36, said in an interview from his home. "It was what needed to be done. In those situations, I'd always rather be working than sitting around feeling bad."

David Gans, veteran Deadhead, journalist and musician, has been at work five years, listening to the music of the Dead. The Grateful Dead Hour, a weekly radio broadcast carried by [more than 85] stations nationwide and heard in Philadelphia [on WXPN 88.5 Thursdays at 11pm and Saturdays at 7pm], delivers excerpts of live performances and studio cuts, occasional interviews with band members, and anecdotal tidbits of insight into the Grateful Dead's ongoing experiment in making music.

"My initial inspiration was that I could shed a lot of light on Gratefal Dead music in different ways using this medium," says Gans. "And that is kind of where I built from."

Gans began his relationship with the Grateful Dead more than a decade ago through writing assignments with various Bay Area music magazines. In 1977, he interviewed guitarist Bob Weir, and in 1981 Gans sat down with Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia - a "real watershed," according to Gans.

A compilation of Gans' interviews with the Grateful Dead, Conversations With the Dead, will be published by Citadel Press of New York through its Citadel Underground series, in the spring.

In 1981, Gans also interviewed the band's bass player, Phil Lesh, and the two hit it off. Lesh "just sat down and gave me his entire musical history in one big, long gulp. It was incredible," Gans remembers.

In the summer of 1982, Lesh invited Gans to his house. "He whipped out the conductor's score to some Beethoven symphony. And we just spent an entire day listening to classical music. His enthusiasm was incredible," Gans said. "We've been friends ever since."

Gans traces the band's trust in him to his seriousness about their work. "They understand I was a scholar and not just some Deadhead trying to get close to them," Gans said. "I'm a student of their music. I am not a fellow traveler. I don't party with the band.

"It's not important to me to be Jerry's confidant; it's important for me to be the band's musical historian. And it's not even important for me to be the only one."

Gans' ability as a historian surfaced in 1985 with the publication of Playing in the Band (St. Martin's Press, New York). Gans' approach, much like the philosophy guiding the Grateful Dead Hour, was to let the music and the musicians speak for themselves.

"The thing that I thought had never really been adequately addressed was the music itself," said Gans, who visits the Grateful Dead's tape archive in San Rafael, Calif. to glean material for his show 'to impress those hardcore difficult-to-please Deadheads."

"So much of the coverage of the Grateful Dead amounts to coverage of kids in the audience, the phenomenon and the cultural weirdness. What I brought to it was the perspective of being a musician. That's what guided me in creating the book."

To promote Playing in the Band, Gans appeared In 1985 as a guest on the Deadhead Hour, a newly created show on KFOG, a rock-and-roll radio station in San Francisco. He presented a 20-minute segment, of stories and early recordings, about the origins of the song "Greatest Story Ever Told," one of the band's concert staples.

Gans had such fun that he asked to appear again. By the end of 1985, he was the host of the show, gladly relieving the disc jockey who turned it over to him.

"I was really having a good time doing it for no money," said Gans, "And some people started asking me: 'How come you don't make this show available elsewhere? Why can't we get it in New York?'"

Gans made some phone calls. WMMR [Phailadelphia] was the first radio station to carry the Deadhead Hour, which began airing in the spring of 1987. Other radio stations followed. The show attracted 16 radio stations and production demands mounted. Gans, with the band's blessing, approached a commercial syndicator to assume the chores of distribution and advertising, and the newly named Grateful Dead Hour began airing in September 1988.

The partnership eventually went sour. The syndicator was focusing, Gans said, on generating a large audience to attract advertisers. "Selling the Grateful Dead to Greyhound or McDonald's was a very difficult thing," he said.

The syndicator dropped the Grateful Dead Hour a year later, "an incredible favor," according to Gans. And one by one, radio stations with local sponsorship stayed with the show. An added bonus for Gans was the addition of a handful of public radio stations.

With the band's permission he shapes programs as he sees fit. "The freedom of thought that this job gives me is worth more than almost anything else that I can imagine," he said. Infrequently, he will assemble a program of interviews interspersed with music, or he may broadcast a version of Grateful Dead songs performed by other musicians. But primarily, the show is the Dead's music.

"The music has never let me down," said Gans, who has 2,000 hours of the band's music in his personal archive. "My tenacity has always been rewarded by the band."

When not listening to the Dead's music, Gans is making his own. His rock band Crazy Fingers, in which he plays "loud guitar" and sings, recently packed 300 into the Last Day Saloon in San Francisco. "What we try to do is to use the Grateful Dead as a springboard into our own stuff," Gans said, "taking the best of what the Grateful Dead have to offer and adding our own character to it."


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