What Would Bill Graham Do? Vibing It Out With Ken Hays (2007)
Since the Gathering of The Vibes is set to kick off on Thursday night we figured we’d share this 2007 interview with founder Ken Hays
Ken Hays is a man dedicated to preserving the community of the Grateful Dead. In 1995 when New York City’s Mayor Giuliani denied a public gathering in Central Park commemorating the legacy of Jerry Garcia, Ken brought 3,500 people to SUNY Purchase to celebrate with music. Following that initial celebration of the life of Garcia, Ken’s Gathering of the Vibes has grown to encapsulate the ever-expanding world and community of the Grateful Dead. From trading tapes on Dead tour to throwing the East Coast’s most celebrated festival, here Ken reflects on past challenges, the Vibes return to Seaside Park and genuine American Beauty.
JH: So this is the 12th anniversary of GOTV. As you look back, how does it feel?
KH: It feels great! Twelve years ago if you said that I’d planning a party for twenty thousand of my closest friends I’d say you’re insane. It has been an incredible ride. Incredibly challenging, but totally rewarding at the same time.
JH: Did you think you’d make it this far?
KH: There’s a phrase that we use in the offices that goes, “We’re pretty much winging this thing!” Every year is a challenge. I never thought that I’d be in the position of doing what I like to do for so long.
JH: Where’d you come up with the idea to do a James Brown tribute night?
KH: Well I’ve got a picture on my desk from backstage at the Vibes in 2003 of my sister, my niece, my nephew and Mr. Brown. He was a pleasure to work with. When we had him in 2003 I felt great for the kids out there that they were able to experience him in his full glory. We’ve got George Clinton and Deep Banana that will be doing some fun stuff and a lot of special guests that will be sitting in, showing their respect, and celebrating his music.
JH: GOTV has moved around the Northeast and been held at several different sites. What brought it back to Bridgeport, CT?
KH: We had always intended to after Vibes 2000. We had just about 10,000 at the Vibes in 99 at Seaside Park in Bridgeport. In 2000 we had around 15,000 people. In the Fall of 2000 the city started work on a master beautification project in the park and put $10 million into it and hydro-seeded 80 acres of grass. It typically takes around 5 years for the ground to settle and the grass to take firm hold so we can park with camped cars on the field without doing damage. Now six years later we can return.
JH: Where’d you get your start in the music business and how did you become involved in festival production?
KH: Our first show was moe. and MMW at the Capitol Theater in Portchester, NY. That was our first step trying out the waters. That was during the Terrapin Tapes days. It seemed like a fun thing to throw a party for some friends. That was where it all began.
JH: So you booked a moe. show which eventually evolved into GOTV?
KH: Indeed. Well.the GOTV started after Jerry died. Giuliani said no to a gathering in Central Park similar to the couple hundred thousand that gathered in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The Mayor couldn’t put up the cash to cover police, fire, EMS expenses and to cover the amount of people that would be in Central Park. So the folks from Dupree’s Diamond News, myself, and Bob Kennedy got together and said. “Let’s do it!” We went to SUNY Purchase College and called it Dead Head Heaven: The Gathering of the Tribe. We had 3,500 people. moe. headlined along with Max Creek. It was an amazing experience.
JH: I didn’t realize that this started as a reaction to Jerry’s death.
KH: Absolutely. This was about celebrating Jerry’s life, the music of the Dead, and how we all collectively as the Deadhead community could move forward together.
JH: How do you move forward together as the Deadhead community?
KH: How do we move forward together as a community? I don’t think it has been anything that has honestly been planned. It has evolved, it has mutated, it has become its own living, breathing entity. It’s very similar to the Grateful Dead which is try to keep it loose but try to keep it tight at the same time and don’t be afraid to change. Just grow and just do what seems right in your mind and your soul and try and do everything you can to keep everyone happy and together as a cohesive group of likeminded individuals caring for their kids and their families and their extended families. When you have common values as a community I think it’s almost magnetic. People want to hang out with like minded friends. It has progressed by its own design.
JH: GOTV has always been traditionally Grateful Dead-oriented. What’s your history with the Dead?
KH: I started Terrapin Tapes in Spring Tour 1991. I was handing out flyers. I had this idea when I went to school in CO when I was doing a lot of tape trading and paying ridiculous prices for Maxell XL II’s. I came back home to Connecticut that summer and would drive into the city and go to Uncle Steve’s and buy XL II 90’s for a great price and figured there had to be a way for everyone in the country to trade their analog cassette tapes and send them out in the mail to the post office but they could get their price at a lower price than going to the store and purchasing them. That was the origin which allowed me to go out on tour and sell Deadbases and hand out flyers about Terrapin Tapes. My friends at home were answering the phones and packing out boxes of tapes and filling out the UPS forms and shipping it out. That’s how Terrapin Tapes began.
JH: When did you first start seeing the Dead?
KH: My first show was 11-10-85. And then I pretty much toured from 1990 on. I did around 370 shows or so.
JH: Was there anything that hit you at your first show?
KH: Oh absolutely. Musically, having listened to American Beauty over and over again[Choking up] It was eye opening. It was the first musical experience that really took hold of me. It inspired me. I don’t listen to enough Dead these days now that we’re working 16 hour days. But it really, truly opened my eyes.
JH: What act are you most excited to see this year?
KH: I get a kick out of being able to turn the Vibe Tribe onto old school artists. The kids that have never seen a James Brown or a Buddy Guy or some of these legendary artists – to give them the experience is incredibly meaningful. For me, Buddy is the man. Bobby coming back and joining us along with Mickey, I feel really good about the way this year’s lineup came about. For Sunday for example, I actually have my younger brother Kevin who is an accomplished jazz artist he has played with Sonny Rollins and Joshua Redman and toured with John Scofield for a number of yearssome pretty heavy hitting jazz folks. On Sunday he’s going to kick off the day then we’re going to do the Mardi Gras parade with Dirty Dozen, and then Martin Sexton, the Wailers, Buddy Guy, and then the festival closes on Sunday night with Los Lobos. It’s an incredibly diverse day of music in the park. I’m looking forward to that full day and having my brother back on the bill is nice because he hasn’t played here in ten years.
JH: How do you feel about being this kid in 85, seeing the Dead for the first time, then devoting years of your life to creating this tape trading program and becoming an effective and contributing member of the Grateful Dead family, and ultimately getting to this point where you hold a gathering on the East Coast with the highest consistency of Grateful Dead members and family?
KH: It feels great. I feel honored. I feel blessed. For 12 years I’ve been able to work with my best friends and we all take such incredible pride in what we do and put in so much effort to pull all the pieces together. At the latter part of the Grateful Dead years it was a hit or miss. We hope to make it a hit every year. This year, moving back home to Connecticut is something we’re all thrilled about. That includes the Vibe Tribe because they have been with us for a long time. About 80% of the attendees of GOTV come back year after year. I think I probably feel like we’ve done what we set out to do. You see a number of children who are accompanying mom and dad. For me I had the NY Mets, that was the bonding experience I had with my father. That was the one solid thing that we always had and we could communicate well about. To see all these moms and dads come with not only younger kids but their teenagers now, and to see them hanging out with their friends and their moms and dads, that makes me smile.
JH: When you first started out seeing the Dead, as a spectator did you ever say, “This is what I want to do, I want to be throwing festivals and shows.”
KH: Never. It was furthest from my mind. It never occurred to me. I wanted to be a paramedic and EMT for a long time and work on an ambulance. This was pretty much out of the blue. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time and I feel really good about it standing here today.
JH: How do you go about organizing an effective lineup for a festival?
KH: Basically, Bob Kennedy and I sit down and throw around some ideas. Bob will make some calls to some agents and hopefully the band is interested in performing and it routes properly on their touring schedule. Then we haggle about money. And hopefully when all is said and done we will be able to have a contract sent to us and keep our fingers crossed.
JH: What’s going to make this year different than other years of Vibes?
KH: We’ve got two main stages. That’s a little different than previous years. We’ve got a Solar Beach Stage which is part of our environmental initiative which is kind of a catch phrase these days. You know, greening. I think we all need to take hold and responsibility and it seems to so many individuals overwhelming, the thought of global warming. We all need to take responsibility for what’s happening on an individual level because there ain’t no time to wait. We all have the responsibility to do everything we can on an individual level to gain awareness
And I’m just babbling here, man. It has been a long day. I’ve been doing 16 hour days for the past six months. It’s a little bit insane. But it’s good, man. I’m having fun.
JH: It’s kind of insane that you work 16 hour days for 6 months straight and it all culminates in three days.
KH: Yeah. It was definitely a roller coaster ride on this one and on every year. You get the build up of climbing up and climbing up for months and it’s just an explosion of emotions. And then it’s over. The ride comes to a screeching halt until it fires up again a couple months after the Vibes completes. Our goal is to have Seaside Park be the home of GOTV for years to come. PT Barnum donated the property when he was the mayor of Bridgeport in 1875 and the architect is the same architect that put together Central Park. There’s something about having live music in the summertime on the water. People can listen to the music and dance at the same time, it’s simply an incredible setting. There’s nothing quite like it in the world.
One usually wouldn’t think of Bridgeport as a place for GOTV. I remember back in 1999 when we announced that we were going to do Vibes at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, there were literally hundreds of people that called me up and emailed and said, “Ken, have you ever been to Bridgeport? Do you have any idea what the hell you’re doing? There are murders there every night!” I was like, “Look, man, I’ve spoken with the cops and they’re totally cool and the Mayor is totally into it and everyone wants it to happen.” It was 1999 and 2000, we had no issues. It was beautiful. It was thousands of people enjoying themselves in the park. It’s an Oasis. You’d never in a million years expect something like Seaside Park right off I-95, exit 27. More and more people are checking out Seaside Park, it’s 55 miles from Manhattan. A couple hours boogying down I-95 and you’re there from most locations. People are flying in from all over the world. We’ve gotten ticket orders from over eight countries and it’s really neatexcept when the calls come in from Italy at 4 AM and wake your ass up.
JH: Did you have problems with ILCC [Indian Lookout Country Club, home of the preceding few Gatherings]?
KH: ILCC from the beginning was a challenge. But I asked them for help. GOTV in 2001 was a festival that was basically out of control. It was a drug festival. I went to ILCC and met with Frank Potter, the owner, and said that I want to continue the GOTV but I’m not going to do it unless we can regain control. That came with its advantages and disadvantages. After five years we’ve regained the integrity of the Vibes which we had lost for a while. People aren’t used to having to get out of their car and get searched. After a while it was kind of like clock work, but getting everyone in and settled was always the greatest challenge. I wish the best for them and for Camp Creek and Camp Bisco. ILCC has a great staff, and in my humble opinion they just need more of them.
JH: What has been your favorite aspect of throwing GOTV?
KH: I think it would be a combination of meeting all of these incredible artists whose music I’ve been listening to for years and years. Having the opportunity to put them on the stage and play to kids and adults that haven’t experienced it. Turning people on to different musical experiences and first time experiences. First time experiences are the Kodak moments that stick. At the same time we have such an incredible team here of volunteers and staff that have been with us for years. To see the smiles on their faces and the pride that they take in their jobs, they feel the same way as I do. We’re here to work and make sure that you have the best time that you possibly can. We just have an incredibly caring crew. They’re all Dead Heads. They’ve all been to tons of shows. If you added up the 750 or so we have on staff, my guess is we’ve collectively been to 35,000 shows. It’s insane. Last year I told Mickey and Billy I had been to some 370 shows and they were like, “Damn, that’s impressive!” And I have other friends that have seen a hell of a lot more. I’ve had the opportunity to bond with these artists that are so incredibly cool. That’s awesome for me. It’s awesome for my crew and everyone – the production crew, the hospitality team. It’s nice when there’s such a positive feel and aura that it’s contagious. It’s tough to be a pain in the ass or grumpy when everyone around you is smiling and having a good time. It changes the spirit. It inspires.
JH: By contrast, over the past twelve years is there anything you wish you could have done differently?
KH: Yeah. It’s such a learning curve. It’s a trial and error process and the key is to try not to repeat errors and learn from your mistakes, be humble, as kind as possible, and make sure that you have as much fun as you possibly can at the same time. This has been hard. It hasn’t been easy festivals and running your own business. I’m no Bill Graham. That man had it down. He saw the vision and executed his vision and consistently did it so well. I strive to uphold his vision. And he was a businessman. He was shrewd, and I’m not that way. I do the best that I can but it seemed to come instinctually to Bill. I had the opportunity to meet him once. I shook his hand back in Telluride in ’87 when the Dead were there after the Red Rocks run. Reading his history, this guy was truly a class act.
JH: He seems to be the man we can aspire to be in terms of production.
KH: I remember a video, or I read it in a book, 1971 Fillmore, something happened to Jerry’s guitar. And Bill knowing nothing about technical anything is out there on his hands and knees trying to fix Jerry’s guitar. If that’s not “whatever it takes” mentality then I don’t know what is.
JH: Anything you’d like to say to GOTV attendees?
KH: Thank you, for all the years of inspiration and support to the good times and the bad.