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Published: 1999/01/15
by Dean Budnick

Gans Goes Solo

David Gans may be the world’s most famous Deadhead (with all apologies to Bill Walton, William Weld, Bear, Steve Silberman et al). His writing on that band has appeared in many books and magazines (his Conversations With The Dead is a personal favorite). He is also the host of the Grateful Dead Hour. However, people may not realize that Gans has done far more than analyze the Dead (his first book focused on the Talking Heads). Indeed, he has been writing and performing music for a long while. Last year he played some high profile gigs with bands, appearing in the Merry Danksters, welcoming Phil Lesh to the stage with the Broken Angels and leading much of the late night jam at the Gathering of The Vibes. Recently however, Gans has decided to focus on his solo acoustic performances. In the following interview he discusses his musical evolution, his tastes and predilections, as well as the dynamics of selecting sounds for the Grateful Dead Hour.

David Gans will be touring the East Coast during the month of February:.

Feb 3 Handlebar, Greenville, SC
Feb 4 Skylight Exchange, Chapel Hill, NC
Feb 6 Cary St. Cafe, Richmond, VA
Feb 8 Patriots Cafe, Fairfax, VA
Feb 10 Blue Terrapin, Elizabethtown , PA (a former “Venue of the Month”)
Feb 11 Khyber, Philadelphia, PA
Feb 13 Mexicali Blues Cafe, Teaneck, NJ
Feb 14 Towne Crier Cafe Pauling, NY
Fb 15 Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, MA
Feb 17 Johnny D’s, Somerville, MA

You may find out more about him as at his web site, www.trufun.com.

B-How long have you been writing songs?

G- I wrote my first song in 1969. I was sixteen or so and I wrote tortured teenage poetry like everyone else at that age. My older brother had a guitar and he set a couple of my poems to music and then he taught me the chords. So in a way I was writing songs before I actually could play guitar. From that point on, anytime he left the house I would steal his guitar, and continue to write. I bought my own guitar as soon as possible.

B- Who were some of your initial influences?

G- I learned everything in the [Beatles]White Album songbook and the Crosby Stills and Nash songbook. Then I was into all sorts of folk music, and there was a lot happening. After that I used to play guitar with a big brother of a classmate of mine. We got really into the Doors, and we would play their music for hours on end, taking turns on lead. Then I got into the singer-songwriter guys like John Prine. Meanwhile, a classmate named Stephen Donnelly and I started writing songs together. He was the lyricist and I would write the music. We had Elton John and Bernie Taupin as our model. He was the guy who actually turned me on to the Grateful Dead and took me to my first show in March of seventy-two {editor’s note- 3/5/72}. So I was really a singer-songwriter, seventies sort of wimp rock guy before I got turned on to the Dead.

B- What impact did the Dead have on your songwriting?

G- Once I got turned onto the Dead that sort of changed everything. We had linked up with a commercial song plugger guy and he was always trying to get us to write hooky songs. Once I was turned on to the Dead, I saw that songwriting could go in all sorts of directions – it didn’t have to be simple, shallow stuff; there was so much more. The Grateful Dead first attracted me for their songwriting before I understood everything that was happening.

B- How quickly and intensively did that association develop?

G- Well I started going to every Dead show I could get to. Rather quickly, most of my friendships revolved around it. When I moved to Berkeley, through a high school classmate, I hooked up with a bunch of guys who played Grateful Dead music, some of whom became my best friends.

B- Most people certainly now know you as a journalist, did you continue to play out during those years?

G- What really happened was in seventy-six my song writing sort of took a back seat to other things. I had another full time job and I also started writing for music magazines. Then in seventy-eight I started working for a computer company in the Bay area and became one of their national consultants. So from about the beginning of seventy-eight until some time in eighty-one I was on the road a lot. I’d stay in a one city for two months working on starting up a new market. I couldn’t really have any continuity in performing. For a few years there I was traveling too much to really focus on my music. In eighty-one I started playing in bands again and sticking closer to home but I still earned my living as an editor and a writer. I played frequently but not consistently. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I put my music back on the front burner.

B- In the interim how did your life experiences influence your songwriting and your performance style?

G- Well they made me into an adult. When I look back now, a lot of the stuff that I wrote when I was younger and didn’t have the courage to present, is actually pretty good material and I’m doing a surprising amount of it now. I really think I was chicken back then. I didn’t really have the confidence, and I think I needed to go through a tremendous amount of stuff in life to become well-rounded enough, solid enough, so that I could stand up there alone and play.

This was also an outgrowth of playing in bands. The stuff I did with the Merry Danksters really taught me my limitations. I was thrilled to be out with those players but I was the weakest player in the chain. I had my strengths but everybody in that group was confronted with their limitations on one level or another. They all regarded me as a songwriter. I think I held my own in the singing department but as a guitar player I was outclassed.

Then I did a few benefit gigs with Phil Lesh in late 1997 and early 1998 which were also really profoundly humbling in a lot of ways. All of that sort to led to my beginning my solo career in earnest once again.

B- Describe that experience when you first took the stage with Phil.

G- I was working with him on a benefit for the Unbroken Chain Foundation, Philharmonia. I was also involved a foundation here at a club in Berkeley. I’m on the board of trustees for the organization that runs it after the guy who had run it was murdered. So we made it into a non-profit. I’ve been on the board trying to keep this thing alive due to my love for the guy who started it, and I had this idea to create a series of benefits both as a place for the Deadhead community to get together and also as a way to raise money for a speaker system for the club. So several of my friends worked with me to create something called the Deadhead Community center there once a month, and all of the proceeds would go to upgrade the sound system at the club.

The first one of those was September twenty-first of ninety-seven, I asked Phil if he wanted to come down and jam with us at the club. His wife and kids were away that weekend, so he kind of had the free time. And he said “sure, I’ll come over.” I basically held off on announcing it until the morning of that day because (a) if he didn’t show up I didn’t want to look like an idiot and (b) I didn’t want the place to be completely insane. As it was we had an overflow crowd, and Phil got up on stage with us and played “Scarlet Begonias” into “New Speedway Boogie.” It was just mind-blowing, it was great fun. He seemed to have a good time, I obviously was thrilled, and so were the other people on stage. At one point he stood in the audience with me and my wife and said he’d never been to a Dead concert, feeling this vibe from the audience, the ecstasy while a jam was going on. And I said “well you know, multiply it by about a thousand and now you’ll know how we felt going to see you play.”

That seemed to get the ball rolling for Phil. He had a good time and agreed to do some more benefits with the Broken Angels. The first one was in November, and he said he’d play a few songs with us so we didn’t really know how to advertise it. It was fairly well attended but not that well attended because people didn’t really know about the scope of his participation. And we did another one in December at the Maritime Hall which had a great turnout. I put together a large group, there were some big jams – we had a cello player for a while and pedal steel player for a while. My role in that wasn’t really to be a guitar god – it was to be a band leader and a traffic manager. I brought a lot of other musicians and dropped them on stage, so I didn’t really have an opportunity to interact with Phil in a concise band situation. Unfortunately for me the whole thing kind of blew up before I had an opportunity for that. We played three organized formal benefits, two at the Maritime and one on January 31st at the Fillmore. But just because of the way things are in Deadland it ended up being a very bittersweet experience.

B- How so?

D- On the day of the Philharmonia, December seventh, Bruce Hornsby and Bob Weir made their pitch to Phil to come out and tour with them in what eventually became the Other Ones. Unfortunately for me, as soon as that happened, I ended up feeling kind of booted out. It was not a very pleasant experience. It was not a simple matter of “okay, we’re going to go play with big guys now.” The mechanics of it were kind of unpleasant and it left me feeling hurt.

Of course in the midst of all of this, the Deadhead community has all this partisanship. Think of how many people just hated Vince Welnick. Well, some of this washed over to me for daring to go up on stage with Phil. There was a thread that started on the dead.net about what a horrible, worthless musician I am, and it hurt.

I mean I never, tried present myself as any kind of great guitar player. I brought in other guys in to play lead at those jams. I knew I was never going to be the guitar player in the reunited Grateful Dead; that was never an ambition of mine, that was never an illusion of mine. The niche I would have in the band with Phil was the one that Bob Weir occupied with the Dead.

So after licking my wounds for a little while I realized that I had to go out and make a name for myself as an individual. That’s when I started playing solo shows outside the Bay Area, and that turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

The story of my life has been I’ve gotten in trouble in one place or another and it turns out to be a shove in exactly the right direction. I’m just extremely thrilled with the way that it has gone and where I’m at today.

I find that I’m building up momentum. I did a very short Midwest tour in June and it went very well. Then I returned to play those places and a few more last September. At that point we started planning this east coat trip for February. I also went back to Chicago in December. I had such a great time at the Heartland cafe in Chicago, I just really hit it off with the people who worked there. So I wanted to come back and do an extended run. They gave me four nights in a row, and it worked out really well.

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