Saturday, October 22, 2005

I was a young man of twenty in 1972, an aspiring banjo player living near the University of Minnesota on the West Bank campus. My friend Ralph was a banjo player too and had been friends with Jerry Garcia back in California in the sixties. “Cousin Ralph” told me one day that the Grateful Dead were coming to the Twin Cities to play a concert and, as he and Jerry were old buddies, that the Dead were coming over to a friend’s place after the gig to hang out and jam some. He wondered if perhaps I would be interested in meeting these guys and playing music with them. I knew very little about the Dead and I wondered what interest they would have in making the West Bank scene with the usual suspects. I did, however, understand the concept of food, which I knew would be there. The promise of getting fed was enough motivation for me to actually show up to see what I could see.

I was at the scene at the appointed hour, hungry, and I was not disappointed. In anticipation of visiting rock dignitaries, the local food experts were putting their best foot forward. It was starting to look like a fun time would be had by me whether or not the jam session panned out. Around eleven thirty, some very well dressed hippies came to the party. It was the Grateful Dead, live. Four of them came and soon two of them left. I discovered the two who stayed were Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. I did not know them, as such, because I was not a follower of popular music; I was a bluegrass guy. I sort of knew about them and didn’t know much but I would know more about them soon.

So, this Garcia guy has a banjo case. Well, I thought, this is getting more interesting. Maybe these guys can actually play some string music and not just Rock and Roll. Jerry broke out the banjo and Bob Weir produced a guitar. They made some noises about how much fun it was to just hang around and pick with real people. By this time, I had my banjo uncased and another local guy had his guitar. That was the jam; Jerry, Bob, me and the other guy. I noticed right away that Jerry’s banjo was unusual and a type I had never seen. It was a Weyman and it had a beautiful tree of life inlay up the neck. And, by golly, the guy could actually pick it too! He picked quite well, in fact. Better than I could even, and by a lot. Not only that, his right hand middle finger was missing from the first knuckle but it didn’t seem to slow him down at all.

It was beginning to dawn on me that I had stumbled onto something pretty special. Both these guys were seriously fine pickers, could sing REALLY well, and they seemed to be having a good time. Meanwhile, I was having one of the most profound experiences of my life. Until that night, I was pretty much a student of the banjo. I had learned many tunes in the four years I had been playing, but had not transcended from rote repetition of known songs to actual jamming or improvisation. But that happened while I stood in between Jerry and Bob. Yup, Kansas boy goes to the big city, has opportunity fall in his lap, and makes good. Right there in between Jerry and Bob; picking tunes, laughing at their jokes and acting all nonchalant and like I hung out with rock heavyweights and swapped licks with them every week or so.

I was learning fast. It dawned on me through the haze that this was really different than I had expected; that I was in a very special place and God was smiling on me right then. I started to be able to make up breaks to the songs these guys were playing by the time it was my turn, which was at the same time amazing but, well, expected somehow. And that Garcia fellow was a really and truly excellent banjo player. They were not just playing the old chestnuts either. I had never heard many of the songs, and others were old blues tunes, some were songs that they performed (Friend of the Devil, Casey Jones), and songs I just plain did not know the origin of but had chord changes that were comprehensible. Yeah, this was getting to be really fun but I wondered when they would tire of the locals and split. They must have enjoyed themselves because they stayed until the last dog was hung, which was dawn. And I was right there too. I found that there was a quality about Jerry Garcia that was transformational and I had been transformed by picking with him. I was now a real picker. I walked into that jam a banjo student and came out a picker. I never forgot that night, and the story of my experience with those guys never fails to amuse people when they hear it. If I can’t wow them with the status of being a banjoist (sarcasm) then the “Night of the Grateful Dead” story will at least confuse them.

I was still in a state of disbelief the day after this experience so I broke out my axe to see if I was just imagining having the ability to improvise or if something had really changed about my playing. Something had changed. Ever since that night I have been able to “just make stuff up”, as the old timers say. Now, I am not saying that the stuff I make up is good, but it is made up. Well, that’s another story for another day.

I learned later that Jerry Garcia was a banjo player first and foremost and that he ended up a guitarist so he could make a living. Learning that helped to explain why he would search out, or at least be open to, jamming with the locals. He probably didn’t get many opportunities to jam with bluegrass guys. Obviously, Bob Weir enjoyed playing music at the “folk level” too. These guys both were pleasant, polite, regular guys. Since that unique night, I paid a whole lot more attention to the Dead when I heard them and followed them in the media when they got ink. I will never forget that night and the gift I was given. Those guys rock.


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