A Conversation With Grateful Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann

Bill

Bill Kreutzmann was part of the culture crunch that was the Grateful Dead for as long as it existed—a drummer whose peaceful, groovy dynamics were as much a part of the band’s jam ethos as its lifestyle. In his memoir, Deal: My Three Decades Of Drumming, Dreams, And Drugs With The Grateful Dead, Kreutzmann talks about the Dead’s music, its vibes, its spooked-out bliss—all that’s Deadhead-y in a warm, conversational tone with weird time signatures not unlike his drumming. Kreutzmann is also busy touring with Billy & The Kids (one of his post-Dead ensembles, in addition to 7 Walkers, SerialPod, BK3 and Rhythm Devils) and readying for not only this month’s tribute event to the late Jerry Garcia in Maryland, but July’s last shows with his Grateful Dead brethren in Chicago.

Having seen you for decades, I’ve always understood that your intuitive talent as a drummer was that you were as interested in exploring the rests as you were punching through the chords and keeping busy. You’re not afraid to not play.
That’s a great compliment to your ears and my playing, as well as getting to know something about me, personally. Playing music should be about knowing the importance of rests. It’s dark and light—you don’t have a contrast until those are in place. A lot of times, I’m leaving holes because of what other people are playing. In the case of the Dead, say with Garcia playing a solo, you might complement, but you really don’t want to play over him. Then again, maybe I’m just relaxing.

Having a nap. That’s a funny thought. So, Aron Magner and Tom Hamilton are in Billy & The Kids. We’re a Philly-based mag, they’re Philly-based players. How do they differ from other ensembles you’ve played with?
These guys will try and do anything. Some of those bands of mine—say, 7 Walkers—have a single groove and stick to it. With Kids, we can go anywhere, especially EDM territory, which Aron increasingly turns me onto. I can be freer. I like EDM a lot. I like anything, as long as you’re not playing soft jazz.

I remember after Jerry passed that you moved to Hawaii to heal, to rejuvenate. How did clearing your head prepare you for Deal?
There was a nice gap between being in Hawaii and starting the book three years ago. I had to take that time after Jerry was gone. I was pretty tired from being on the road all the time. I needed to not be in the Dead. When I met (co-author) Benjy (Eisen), I found a kindred spirit and felt like, with him, I could tell the certain things that I wanted to.

Certain things. Is Deal, like your drumming, as much about what’s left out?
I didn’t spend three years of hard work on something to speak bad of anyone—not that that is what you’re implying, I wanted to make sure there was positivism to it. Plus, I didn’t necessarily have to leave anything out because there’s nothing in my life that I would be embarrassed about. I think I write a very complete picture from when I started to play drums up until, well, this conversation.

I just missed the cut then. No, it’s a fondly remembering book.
Yeah, it’s hardly an exposé. I don’t have the spirit or the memory for that. I wanted to do this time-overlapping thing. That comes from me being a drummer. I have the weirdest timing. Two years go by and they seem like a week. Time doesn’t exist anyway—it’s scientific fact. That’s how I am with stuff. That’s what makes Deal.

Did you know when you wanted this out—timed as it is to the Dead’s 50th anniversary? Did you want another member to go before you, as Phil Lesh did with Searching For The Sound?
No, it’s not as if his book spurred me on. I think three years ago I just had a feeling about doing this, and I was lucky to find a friend to do it with—and not necessarily someone who was an author. I didn’t want someone doing my life in another voice.

Throughout Deal, you sound as if you are closer to Garcia than you are Bob Weir or Lesh, musically and personally.
Wow, if that came across that way, it wasn’t something I intended. That’s interesting, though, really. That’s a cool observation.

Garcia was a more concise player and songwriter; a funny notion given his improvisational largesse.
Yes, definitely. Each had different manners in how they approached songs, but Jerry would come with the most complete version of a song; Bobby came in with skeletons and the hope that the process would fill it in—the whole jam thing. I don’t think I would ever have let on that one was better than the other; each is reflective of the man’s personalities.

No embarrassment. Lots of drugs and death. Were there aspects of Deal easier for you to recall then relay?
Gosh … there were certainly aspects that were hard to write, even if I’m not quite certain as to why that is. I mean, memory is an issue. Tragedy was another, and there was plenty around the Dead. That brought back memories I would rather have not reconnected. Writing about Jerry’s death, of course, was particularly sad.

Sad as you were, Deal sounds as if you found solace, an epiphany.
Most certainly. I fell deeply in love with Amy, the woman who became my wife. I also came to realize—no joking—how amazing the Dead were. ’Cause you forget as you’re in the center of it. She’s a Deadhead. God bless her, she’ll tell you that that straight away. And she would say, “You want proof? Listen to the Spring 1990 tapes.” I did, and she was right. We did some incredible stuff. So, Deal had a double epiphany. I found two loves: her and the Dead’s music.

Like your wife, do you pay much attention to the archival stuff? The Dick’s Picks, the new live volume from 1971 with Pigpen?
I do. I listen, but I can’t quote verbatim like her. My wife works at KKCR in Hawaii when she’s home and does the Dead Hour. She’s got the To The Vault and the Dick’s Picks memorized.

You once said the Grateful Dead without Garcia was like Miles Davis’ band without Miles. That being the case, how did it come to pass that you’re doing the Maryland tribute and the July finale?
They both mean so much to me that I’m practicing non-stop. I mean, I always practice, but now I’m doing double time. I think it’s going to be damn good. Seriously, I think they’re going to relive a place—it’s not the same place as before, but it is going to be a very high place where we’ve never been before, a peak we never achieved. Having Trey (Anastasio) play guitar, I think he’s going to hold his own and then some. It’s going to be wonderful. I can’t wait.

—A.D. Amorosi