A Taylor Twofer: Ann Coulter and Al Franken
With a nod to this past weekend's Grateful Dead Symposium and the looming 2008 primary season, we draw together two interviews from Taylor Hill that draw together both topics…
"Deadheads Are What Liberals Claim to Be But Aren’t": An Interview with Ann Coulter
When I called the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, whose chairwoman gives speeches on topics with titles like "The Failures of Feminism", and told the gatekeeper there that I wanted to do an interview with Ann Coulter solely about the Grateful Dead, there was a small pause. Then she recovered and politely told me to send her an e-mail, which she would forward to Ann. That, I expected, would be the end of it.
When I got home that night, and saw an e-mail in my box from Ann Coulter, I thought "how polite of her to send a rejection letter rather than simply ignoring my proposal." Instead, I found that she had somehow written "I’d love to! Good website!" While she was delayed by a round of speeches to make up due to strep throat, and other events life throws out, we kept shooting e-mails back and forth and I discovered a secret that I will reveal despite the damage to her reputation that it may cause: Ann is really cool and really funny. The few friends I talked with about this said "What? You of all people are getting along with Ann Coulter?!" It was easy and simple to do: we never talked policy. It was a joy talking with her, even if we don’t agree on everything (most politics, and "Alabama Getaway" sucks).
What followed was the most surreal interview I have ever done in my life. It involves smearing oneself with purple Crisco, Kanye (Ann’s a fan), slews of Reagan and Bush appointees leaving the Justice Department to go to Dead shows, lamentation for the neglected "Pride of Cucamonga," getting inside info on the Monica Lewinsky scandal by being a Deadhead, and saying goodbye to Jerry in Golden Gate Park. Some of her answers WILL piss people off, but there’s no doubting her tie-dyed credentials even if the dye is much more red than blue. Her latest book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, was published earlier this month.
Taylor Hill: When and how was your first Dead show?
Ann Coulter: I have no recollection of it whatsoever, other than that it was awesome.
TH: When and how was your last Dead show?
AC: I have no recollection of it whatsoever, other than that it was awesome. Actually, my last Dead show wasn’t quite a Dead show since Jerry wasn’t there, but I flew out to the Jerry Garcia memorial in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco with a fellow Deadhead from D.C. the weekend after Jerry went to the great psychedelic rock concert in the sky. The rest of the band played and it was great to be with my fellow Deadheads. It was very sad after Jerry died, not because I felt like I had a psychic connection to him or anything, but only because something really fun I liked to do, I couldn’t do anymore. It would be as if all ski resorts just shut down one day. So the Golden Gate Park memorial was a good way to end it.
TH: How many Dead shows did you see?
AC: I used to keep all my ticket stubs from Dead shows it was just something Deadheads did, like keeping lists of songs but I didn’t know why. So, in a lunatic cleaning frenzy around 1990, I threw them all out as if a small section of a drawer devoted to Dead ticket stubs was messing up the whole place. After Jerry died, I said, “Eureka! That’s why we keep ticket stubs!” These are usually the sort of factual minutiae Deadheads excel at, but I failed because of my OCD cleaning obsession. So I’m not exactly, precisely 100 percent sure. I frantically tried to figure it out by checking with some of my fellow Deadheads after Jerry died and adding up the number of shows we had been to together, and I estimated it was about 67 shows. And they were awesome.
TH: Have you ever seen any of the side projects, like Phil & Friends and Ratdog?
AC: I’ve seen Ratdog a few times (chicks love Bobby), though no Dead at all since Jerry died. THEY’RE DEAD TO ME NOW! (Joke.) I still listen to Dead tapes and CDs, but no more concerts for me. Of course, I’ve been working a lot, so basically no more fun for me.
TH: Are there any other jambands you like?
AC: All the usual String Cheese Incident, Phish, Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, New Potato Caboose. I can’t really tell you all the groups I like because have an iPod so have a lot of songs my friends send me and I never really know who I’m listening to. But I try to keep up with what the young people are listening to these days (I love saying that). There’s Jet, Cake, Outkast, 50 Cent, Black-Eyed Peas, Lord Alge, Beck, Kanye West (I like his Jesus song), Missy Elliot, and Eagles of Death Metal. I’m five years behind, aren’t I? I’m very busy!
TH: What exactly do you love about the Grateful Dead?
AC: The tie-dye of course. Truth be told I hated tie-dye, though I finally broke down and would wear tie-dyed Dead shirts to concerts solely as a tribute to my fellow Deadheads.
Oddly enough, I like the music. No one believes that I never took drugs at Dead shows (except for the massive clouds of passive marijuana smoke) but I went because I really liked the music. There are various groups I get enthusiastic about for awhile, but of all the music I’ve listened to over the years, the Grateful Dead is the one band I never grow tired of. Apparently, the same is true of me for ski-lift operators.
Moreover, I really like Deadheads and the whole Dead concert scene: the tailgating, the tie-dye uniforms, the camaraderie it was like NASCAR for potheads. You always felt like you were with family at a Dead show a rather odd, psychedelic family that sometimes lived in a VW bus and sold frightening looking “veggie burritos.” But whatever their myriad interests, clothing choices, and interest in illicit drugs, true Deadheads are what liberals claim to be but aren’t: unique, free-thinking, open, kind, and interested in different ideas. Also, excellent dancers! Watching a Deadhead dance is truly something to behold.
Somewhat contrary to the image of Deadheads as hippies, the Dead were huge in my hometown of New Canaan, CT, which is a pretty preppie town. We toyed with the idea of making "Truckin’" our prom song with a "Long Strange Trip" theme, but we ended up with some dorky rainbow theme instead. I tend to associate the Dead with lacrosse players and my favorite fraternities, Fiji and Theta Delt.
The one time I missed not being able to go to Dead shows more than any other since Jerry died was during the Clinton impeachment. There was so much viciousness – killed cats, punctured tires, threats, investigations and slander against those of us favoring impeachment. (Anthony Pellicano, you’ll recall the Hollywood private investigator now accused of criminal conspiracy, attempted murder, and making criminal threats was working for the Clintons during the Monica Lewinsky investigation.) I don’t really care what people say about me I’m a Christian so there’s nothing anyone can ever do to me but I kept thinking: “Boy, would I like to go to a Dead show and dance with happy, friendly deadheads for just one night!”
TH: What’s your favorite Grateful Dead album?
AC: I can’t possibly pick one favorite. Nor a favorite concert tape. I have about fifty Dead tapes, including the original rap song – Mickey Hart rapping “Fire on the Mountain” – I think at my alma mater, Cornell, before I was even born. It’s fantastic. How about that? Just when you thought the Dead could be no cooler they even invented rap!
My collection of Dead tapes, by the way, was the reason I heard one of the Linda Tripp tapes before Ken Starr did. Tripp’s lawyer obviously needed to hear the tape before turning it over to the prosecutor, but he only had an old 1950’s tape player and couldn’t get it to work and Ken Starr wanted the tape the next morning. He was terrified he’d hit the wrong button and erase the evidence. In the wee hours of the morning, it occurred him, a Deadhead himself, that he knew one person in D.C. who definitely had a tape machine. So, at around 2 AM, he called me and asked to come over to use my tape deck.
My favorite Dead song is the last song I heard, and my favorite concert was the last concert I went to, but among my favorite songs are: “Eyes of the World”, “Loose Lucy”, “Franklin’s Tower”, “Althea”, “Fire on the Mountain”, “Deal”, “Sugar Magnolia”, “Unbroken Chain”, “Cassidy”, “Pride of Cucamonga”, “Uncle John’s Band”, “Ripple”, “Casey Jones”, “I Will Take You Home”, “Passenger”, “Stagger Lee”, “Tennessee Jed”, “Mississippi Half-Step”, “Good Lovin’” – I even love “Alabama Getaway”, which I gather Deadheads are supposed to spurn for being “commercially successful.” (Of course, we were also supposed to say “Phil makes the band.” I love Phil, but when Jerry died, that turned out not to be true.)
By the way, you did not ask me what my favorite bumper sticker or button is . . . and I know the answers to those questions! Bumper sticker: “Dead For Life”; button: “Jews For Jerry.”
TH: What’s your favorite Grateful Dead show, and why? Were you there?
AC: They were all my favorites especially the shows at Shoreline. It’s a beautiful outdoor amphitheater, the Dead’s home field, with California chardonnay for sale by the glass (in addition to not being a pot-smoker, I’m not much of a beer-drinker), and I often ran into my college Deadhead friends there. We’d go sailing during the day and see the band at night.
I fondly remember seeing the Dead when I was at Cornell. It was the day of the fabulous Fiji Island party on the driveway “island” of the Phi Gamma Delta House. We’d cover ourselves in purple Crisco and drink purple Kool-Aid mixed with grain alcohol and dance on the front yard. Wait I think got the order reversed there: We’d drink purple Kool-Aid mixed with grain alcohol and then cover ourselves in purple Crisco then the dancing. You probably had to be there to grasp how utterly fantastic this was.
Also, I saw the Dead at Sandstone Amphitheater near Kansas City one Fourth of July, and it was an incredibly patriotic experience.
TH: Have you ever talked with any members of the Grateful Dead?
AC: Oh yes, constantly. None of the band members were present for these conversations, but I talk to them. “Good show! Excellent Olympics opening ceremony, Mickey! Nice uniforms on those Lithuanians. Why don’t you ever play “Pride of Cucamonga” in concert? The concert hall would go wild and it would make the cover of the New York Times! Did you guys really used to dose people?”
*TH: Did the Grateful Dead give you and Al Franken something to talk about
during your debates?*
AC: Apart from Al Gore, Al Franken is the most un-Deadhead like person I know of who purports to be a Deadhead.
TH: It’s time to name names. Who are the other Deadheads who have infiltrated the conservative movement?
AC: As a Deadhead and a freedom-lover, I am wounded to the bone that you think the two do not naturally go hand in hand. The Deadheads I just met casually and not through conservative politics were almost always right-thinking, whatever they called themselves. Deadheads believe in freedom not a government telling people how much water they can have in their toilets or where they can smoke or whether they should be allowed to own a gun. (Remember the photos of Jerry testifying before some Congressional committee while chain smoking? Yeah, he’d really bond with Henry Waxman.)
One of my Dead friends I met at Vail made candles for Grateful Dead merchandizing. His daily routine consisted of waking up, smoking a bowl, and turning on the Rush Limbaugh radio show while he made his candles. (It’s true. He’s so far out there he practices this weird, freaky ritual known as “commerce.” Don’t try telling me pot is harmless!)
Also there was a big Deadhead Christian group that handed out terrific pamphlets at Dead shows. Admittedly, many of them found God staring into a puddle while high on LSD, but whatever the path, they were very serious Christians they made Jerry Falwell sound like a secularist.
Either Bobby or Jerry was asked by a Rolling Stone interviewer to denounce all the Young Reaganites attending their concerts in the 80’s, and whichever one it was not only refused to attack the young Republicans, but said he liked some of those “rightist” ideas. Consider that when the Dead decided to do something to save the Rain Forest, they didn’t harangue poverty-stricken Third Worlders to give up washing machines and electricity. They did it the free market way: buying up parts of the Rain Forest, parcel by parcel.
And they provided the Lithuanian basketball team recently liberated from the Soviet yoke with totally cool uniforms so they could play in the 1992 Olympics.
After Jerry died, U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI) gave an incredibly touching tribute to Jerry Garcia and the good work the Dead’s Rex Foundation had done promoting the arts privately in contradistinction to millionaire actresses standing up in $50,000 gowns at the Oscars and demanding that hardworking waitresses and truck drivers be forced to support the arts through government taxation. You can look it up in the Congressional Record.
But to answer your question, Senator, I personally have loads and loads of friends who are right-wingers and Deadheads. I couldn’t possibly name them all. For starters, obviously, there’s Angela Lansbury. She gave me my first psychedelic tie-dyed tube top at a Dead show just outside Tucson. Just kidding. There are: Peter Flaherty, President, National Legal And Policy Center; John Harrison, top official in the Justice Department under Reagan and Bush and now a law professor at UVA; Jim Moody, MIT grad and libertarian attorney (and Linda Tripp’s lawyer); Gary Lawson, former Scalia clerk and currently a law professor at Boston University Law School; Andrew McBride, partner at a DC law firm; DeRoy Murdoch, conservative columnist; Ben Hart, right-wing author of “Poisoned Ivy” out of Dartmouth. Oh, and the conservative talk radio host Gary Stone in Palm Springs is a Deadhead and kindly plays the Dead as my intro music. When I worked at the Justice Department during law school, I’d be leaving with a whole slew of Reagan or Bush political appointees to see the Dead at RFK. Finally, I believe the great New York subway vigilante Bernie Goetz was a Deadhead.
TH: So, I was talking to Kristy Cottrell, my friend and chairman of the Auburn University College Republicans, and she said she had no good advice for me as she really only listens to country. For someone who only listens to country, what is a good point to break into the Grateful Dead?
AC: Oh, there’s a lot of overlap: “Mama Tried”, “Me and My Uncle”, “Dark Hollow”, “Cumberland Blues”, “Tennessee Jed”. I think a country music lover would like a lot of the Dead. She might not like “Space”, but no one who was not on drugs did.
TH: Do you remember the first time you heard the Grateful Dead?
AC: I definitely remember the first time I heard the Dead the first time the whole family heard the Dead. It was “Uncle John’s Band” blasting from my oldest brother’s bedroom. The first two albums Santa gave me when I was around 11 years old were Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and American Beauty. I think my parents’ reaction was, “Well, at least they’re not listening to the Osmonds.”
"One More Saturday Night" With Al Franken
When I Ann Coulter a few months ago, I knew it would get a lot of readers and shock almost all of them, but I had no idea how big the storm would be. Among the hundreds of e-mails I received: Bob Weir’s tour manager trying to get Bobby in touch with Ann, an old Cornell Deadhead who ran Students for Reagan at Cornell, the guy who listened to Rush Limbaugh and made candles, the guy who runs GDTS who defended Al Franken, a stalker, liberals expressing amazement, conservatives expressing amazement, a nasty letter from a Relix staffer, a bunch of Ann’s old friends from tour, and two fact-checkers from two different newspapers who wanted to make sure the interview was not a joke before running an article about it. It was a joy to watch conservatives coming out of their tie-dyed closets by the dozen, and watch the blogs light up across the aisle. A lot of people asked me “Why? Why did you give her the publicity?”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think of publicity for the site, but I wouldn’t have done the interview for that reason alone. I did it because I think it’s awesome that the most famous right-wing pundit and the most famous left-wing pundit are both Deadheads. I wanted to show that being a Deadhead transcended politics it is the bridge which unites people on opposite sides of any spectrum (be it political, economic, lifestyle, or any other category) and testifies to the power of music to give common ground to opposite people. But now, it’s time for the interview with the most famous left-wing pundit.
It’s a rare treat to interview someone who made your childhood that much brighter, but Stuart Smalley himself, Al Franken, was nice enough to take a break from his radio show to talk about his Grateful Dead experiences. He saw his first show after graduating from Harvard, and his last show while making Stuart Saves His Family in Las Vegas (I don’t care what anyone says. The movie is an American classic.).
“That last show was really special,” Franken said. “I took my daughter backstage and she got to meet Jerry.”
Franken, unlike the casual Deadhead (and casual Deadhead may be an oxymoron), knew the band, and worked with them, putting on sketches for NYE extravaganzas, getting the band on Saturday Night Live, and even writing a move entitled “One More Saturday Night.” He shared stories about being backstage, in front of the stage, and even in production with, the Grateful Dead.
Franken recalls pranking his co-star of One More Saturday Night, Tom Davis. "There was one time Jerry came in, and we hung out with Jerry, he kind of produced some music we did for One More Saturday Night. Tom (Davis) and I are in a band. At one point, we just had Jerry lay down a solo for Tom. Basically, we played the stuff, because we were going to play it in the movie. We played a bar band. But at one point we had Jerry lay down a solo for Tom. And Tom didn’t know it. I think he was in the bathroom. He came in, heard it, he just knew it was Jerry.”
Franken was a friend of the band, and the band worked to create magical moments for his family. When asked for a favorite experience, Franken cited the bond that the music created with his family, bridging generations.
“You know, I really liked – there was one at Giants Stadium I really, really liked. I took my daughter, and we ended up backstage. I asked them to play Box of Rain’ for the encore, and they did. My daughter and I just love Box of Rain.’ Phil forgot one line, words half-spoken, thoughts unclear.’ There are some songs that are kind of circular.”
Franken, like Coulter sometimes, uses the Grateful Dead as show introduction music. When asked how he chooses, Franken said “Intro and outro music is always without lyrics, because what it’s covering is IDs from other stations, so you don’t want any lyrics covering. It’s really choice Jerry solos, almost entirely.”
Sometimes the busy schedule that comes with politics made readjustment to the musical world difficult. “The first time at the Jammys was a little bit of a disaster,” Franken said. “I should have known this – I agreed to do it, but I had a plane leaving ridiculously early the next morning at Kennedy. So I told the organizers ‘look, I have to leave at a certain time.’ So I was supposed to present an award to the Dead, to Bob, and it just kept getting later and later. Finally, it was like 11 or so, and I said unless this happens soon I’m going to have to go, and just then the Allman Brothers and somebody else got up to jam together, and it was pretty clear that I was going to have to go. So I didn’t get to do what I really came to do. But I got to meet Leo Kottke. There’s a jammer I liked to meet.”
At the same time, it was the way to cope with its demands, and the music provided Franken with a four-hour vacation. “I could go to a Dead concert and come back refreshed, mentally,” Franken said.
Franken pulls no punches when asked for one of his favorite Grateful Dead moments from the front of the stage a moment enhanced by more than music. “My favorite story is going to a concert at Winterland, and this happened sometime pretty early, like in ’74, ’73,” Franken said. “I took [something], and there was a girl on top of a guy’s shoulders. Danced to the whole thing on top of the guy’s shoulders. I’m ashamed to say it, but I spent almost the entire concert looking at her breasts. She had a tight, like leotard kind of thing on. I remember just, like, you know how you can look at something for hours? I’m really not sure how long I looked at ‘em. It was really, very pleasant listening to the music, and she was dancing on top of the guy’s shoulders. He must have been very strong, and it was great. One of the best moments of my life, or one of the best several hours of my life." When asked if the woman was the “Pride of Cucamonga,” Franken laughed and said “Yeah she was.”
Franken was asked, as Ann was, if the Grateful Dead gave them something to talk about during their debates, but (gasp!) there are even people who are friends with both of them. “More we talked about Tim Downey, who’s a mutual friend. He’s a conservative, with whom I wrote a lot of the political stuff. We wrote a lot of the Bush (41) debate stuff with him and others. We were really very much deep in politics. We were political junkies (on Saturday Night Live).”
Considering that I was on the phone with a childhood hero, I couldn’t resist, and asked him what Stuart Smalley would do to get Bob Weir and Phil Lesh onstage together again. After Franken stopped laughing, he gave a candid answer regarding the band’s tumultuous history.
“Well, obviously it would start off with Stuart trying to find out who they are. I don’t think Stuart’s a Deadhead. So that would be the first part of the lesson, familiarizing himself with the history. Stuart would probably break it down to some kind of codependency issue. The dynamic of the dead, sad goodbyes, addiction, everyone’s dependency on each other Jerry, Brent, Keith dying. People not in denial about these things. Processing it properly, embracing their grief, not talking about it enough.
Considering that almost no fans of improvisational music under 25 have seen a Grateful Dead show, I asked Franken what he would most like them to realize. It is something many of us know and have felt with different bands, and it is refreshing to see the spirit passed on.
“It’s how important the music was, and also how important the community of people that came to watch them was. It was a magical, communal experience going to the concert – being wrapped up in the music. The music was paramount to me, and not the lights, and Bobby might play something with a flourish every now and then, but other than that it was all about the music.”