July 10, 2019

What I Learned From Jerry

Classic City Deadheads

Photo Credit: Mike White

Kevin Sweeney

Editor’s note: In the summer series Classic City Deadheads, Athenians are celebrating their love of the Grateful Dead and reflecting on some of their favorite Dead (or Dead-inspired) recordings. This week’s head is Kevin Sweeney, a guitarist and sound engineer known for fronting the long-running local rock band Hayride.

I learned about the Grateful Dead the same way I learned about most of my favorite bands when I was young: corporate rock radio. WKLS 96 Rock regularly played "Truckin'" and "Casey Jones," two of the most accessible tunes the band produced, and I would often hear them on "Psychedelic Psaturdays" while working my weekend landscaping job. In the spring of 1985, 96 Rock broadcast a special on the Dead called "20 Years So Far." From the opening notes of the Live/Dead version of "St. Stephen," I was hooked. I loved that Gibson SG into a Fender Twin sound, the slight peal of feedback and the massive bass sound tumbling into the riff. The hippie-dippy lyrics were pretty funny—almost like Spinal Tap in the Summer of Love—but the verse ended with a cynical "Wherever he goes/ The people all complain." An unexpected twist that turned out to be a staple of their lyrics.

I tried to see them at the Fox that fall, but I didn't know the deal with Dead shows. They were just another old band on the radio to me, and I figured I could go by Turtle’s after work and pick up tickets, as I had done for many concerts. (I camped out for the big metal shows, of course.) I was cutting grass at 9:30 a.m. when I heard the announcement that the show had sold out immediately. That's when I learned about the Deadhead subculture and all of the trappings around the band. 

I didn't get to see them until a couple of years later (hi, Hollis!), when they were on the crest of the wave of massive and, ultimately, destructive popularity. I'm glad I did see them then, because the shows became pretty depressing later on. (Though I'm sure it already was depressing to the older heads in the ’80s, when I was seeing them for the first time.)

In that gap between missing them and seeing them, I learned all about their history and their catalog. I would rent the VHS tapes for The Grateful Dead Movie and Dead Ahead just about every weekend. I learned an entirely new way of playing guitar from listening to Jerry Garcia (and from my parallel appreciation for the Allman Brothers). I was used to playing lead guitar in the Page/Hendrix vein of pentatonic blues scales. The Dead and Allmans introduced me to that other scale (Mixolydian—you know, the one where you put your little finger there, instead of there, like "Ramblin' Man") and to endless improvisation. Garcia was as influential on my playing as any other guitar player, as well as being my No. 1 fashion influence. 

One thing that always fascinated me was the band's unique equipment. The Wall of Sound PA system, Alembic guitars and basses, the custom Irwin guitars. (The battle over custody of those guitars really showed me the light as to who was who in the band—#teamphil!) They really did some innovative stuff. The club I often work at has Meyer speakers and Furman power conditioners—both companies were created by Grateful Dead crew members. So many things that are industry standards now came out of the band and crew's acid-fueled experimentation. I guess it helps when you can see the music.

Unlike many people, I've always been a fan of their records. Maybe it was all the years of studying those VHS tapes and learning songs like "Franklin's Tower" and "Fire on the Mountain" from those legitimately released shows. 

Fave raves:

"Althea," from Go to Heaven: I love the intro lick, the snappy (compared to the smacked-out live pace) tempo and the great sound of the recording. Like any Deadhead, sometimes the lyrics resonate with me, and "Ain't nobody messing with you but you" is something I've thought about many people over the years. I should make a bumper sticker.

"Morning Dew," from The Grateful Dead Movie (via Winterland ’74): Maybe it's because of the visuals, and the one that goes on forever from May 8, 1977 is probably better, but I love this version. The quiet part when Keith Godchaux plays a little interlude as the camera pans over him, the weird, clunky bass chords after the first verse—there's a lot to like there, as long as you're already digging it. I wouldn't try to convert anyone by showing them this—that tactic failed with Nick Bielli when we were in high school.

"Cream Puff War”/“The Golden Road," from The Grateful Dead: Tie for garage-punk favorites. I'm not a big Pigpen fan, but the fuzzy Farfisa sound that drives these songs along is pretty kickass. They were obviously on speed for this whole record, and I prefer speedy music to sloooow, for the most part. If this was the only record they had ever made, they would probably be included on Nuggets compilations. 

"Crazy Fingers Jam,” Feb. 28, 1975: This rehearsal tape recorded at Bob Weir's home studio sounds like Jerry just got his first MXR Distortion+ pedal. He should've just left it on all the time for the next 20 years.

"Franklin's Tower”/“Space/Drums”/“Fire on the Mountain," from the Dead Ahead video and Dead Set album: The first time I ever heard the two songs bookending this combo was on the Dead Ahead VHS. I didn't know at the time that this was an unusual pairing—I didn't hear the "Scarlet”/“Fire” combo until years later. I like these versions as much as any.