We are thrilled to present the very FIRST of our 2014 author Q&As with Buzz Poole. He’s going to write about the Grateful Dead, it’s about time someone did for this series.
Buzz Poole, author of the upcoming 33 1/3 on the Grateful Dead, has written about books, design, music, and culture for numerous outlets, including Print, The Village Voice, The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Millions. He is the author of the story collection I Like to Keep My Troubles on the Windy Side of Things. The New Statesman named his examination of unexpected iconography, Madonna of the Toast, one of 2007’s Best Underground Books. He is also the co-author of Camera Crazy (Prestel, October 2014).
BP: I grew up in a house where we listened to a lot of music, everything from classic rock and folk music to show tunes, big band, and Sinatra. On the weekends my dad would relax by leafing through fake books and banging on the piano. I think he could have been very happy as Billy Joel’s Piano Man. So it was hard to escape music when I was a kid and I came to love it, by virtue of rejecting a lot of what my folks listened to (though as I got older and grasped a more thorough understanding of American music I returned to some of it). I loved the John Denver/Muppets Christmas album and even as a young kid dug looking at the record sleeve of Sgt. Pepper’s (that same copy of the record is still in my collection). Some older cousins gifted me tapes that I thought were cool because they gave them to me: Boz Scaggs, The Police, The Hooters (yes, I am from Philadelphia). I don’t remember how we got Thriller. It was definitely a couple years after the release, but I will never forget being on the floor with my brother, crouching over a little tape player and listening over and over, freaking out to Vincent Price. The first tape I ever bought was Living Colour’s Vivid. I was on a field trip to Colonial Williamsburg and my mom had given me $20, thinking I’d get some site-specific souvenirs. She was so pissed that the tape was all I had to show for the trip.
As I honed my musical tastes I was also reading everything within reach, which led to me writing. It didn’t take long for me to think that it would be really cool to write about anything and everything that interested me. I started writing about music around 2001 while living in the Bay Area, first for some now defunct websites, then from time to time for the East Bay Express and, after moving to New York, the Village Voice. I really liked writing reviews and features but it became clear to me that being a full-time writer, and getting paid enough to live, was nearly impossible. So I shimmied my way into book publishing as an editor, working primarily on illustrated books, some of which focused on music, and later editing fiction.
Fast-forward a decade or so and here I am – very lucky to have worked on editing and writing projects that I have found fascinating and fun, and in a few instances important.
What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
BP: I love the Grateful Dead – there’s no getting around this. But I do understand why some people don’t like the band. The vocals can be ragged, the music can meander; the lows are low but the highs defy explanation. I’m not looking to convince people that they need to enjoy the music. What I am aiming to do, however, is draw out the quintessential American dynamics of the band – from musical influences to how the Dead has left its residue all over American culture. The songs that comprise Workingman’s Dead are not only incredibly accessible – the longest song clocks in at 5:41 – but they serve as great points of entry into ideas I’ve been kicking around for years, letting me riff on topics as varied as the Zodiac Killer, copyright laws, and the cycles of nature.
Who will you be reaching out to during the writing process? Why?
BP: I’ve been reaching out to members of the Dead family and some of the longtime scribes who have been thinking about the band since before I was born. I’ve been really surprised by how eager some people have been to talk with me about Workingman’s Dead and everything going on around the band in 1969 and ’70. I’m planning a trip out to California to meet some folks, but since “Nothing’s for certain / it could all go wrong” (that’s from “High Time”) I’m going to leave it at that for the time being.
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another? Be as specific and detailed as you’d like.
BP: In talking to a friend about the series, we both were surprised that no one had written about the Dead. After writing a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books about an academic anthology of Grateful Dead Studies I really got to thinking about some of the ideas that I touched on in that review. I checked out the 33 1/3 submission guidelines and got serious about putting together my proposal. For me, the biggest challenge was choosing the album I wanted to write about. I knew it just couldn’t be about how awesome the Grateful Dead is because Jerry Garcia’s solos are so awesome especially when you are tripping and everything is awesome. So much of what I appreciate about the band beyond the music is its relationship to American cultural history so I started free associating on the track lists from a few albums – Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, Mars Hotel – and lo and behold here I am.
What do you want to explore about this band/singer/artist that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
BP: The best book about the Grateful Dead is Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip – an authorized biography of the band. There are books about Jerry Garcia, books written by various members of the Dead family, and books about all the concerts ever played. But there are no books about specific albums. When Workingman’s Dead was released in 1970 both critics and fans loved it and its reputation as an excellent album from start to finish has held up through time. There’s a lot to be said for listening to these songs in a vacuum but when you start to examine everything that went into these songs – both obvious and not so obvious – and then telescope out from there, let’s just say there is no shortage of ideas to explore. I think the real legacy of the Grateful Dead is only now starting to be realized simply because the band hasn’t existed for almost twenty years, but the music is still very much out there, being performed by surviving members and loads of other very different types of musicians. The timing just seems right for a different take on the Dead – 2015 is the band’s 50th anniversary. My take is critical of certain circumstances that fed into what the band became while also wholly appreciative of the results in terms of the music and a lot of what inspired it.
What 33 1/3s have you read? Which are your favourites? Why?
BP: Thanks to some friends who were working on the 33 1/3 series several years ago, I was given a copy Carl Wilson’s take on taste as understood through Celine Dion’s popularity. I’m with everyone else on this – it is a great and inventive piece of cultural criticism. From there I started checking out some other titles in the series based on my tastes, including Franklin Bruno’s look at Armed Forces and Kim Cooper’s dissection of Aeroplane Over the Sea. As I dug deeper I really came to appreciate the series’ variety, both in terms of the albums selected and the different approaches, from the academic thesis to a fictional response.
What was your first concert?
BP: Little Feat opening for the Allman Brothers, November 15, 1991, at the Philadelphia Spectrum. A friend’s mom drove us and the lights were down when we entered. I remember wondering about how any band could fit on such a small stage until I realized I was looking at the soundboard. I was pretty familiar with Little Feat because of the live album Waiting for Columbus and I knew all the Allman Brothers hits from listening to the local rock stations like WMMR and WYSP. I hadn’t smoked pot at this point and couldn’t believe how casually it was being smoked all around us. Aside from that, the light show during the Allman Brothers set sticks with me, along with buying a t-shirt out in the parking lot after the concert. My hazy memories are likely the result of a contact high.
How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? And could you tell us why?
BP: CD and vinyl, and I listen to a fair amount of radio, mostly WFUV and WBGO. I’m not particularly tech savvy and have never taken the time to amass tons of digital music files. Over the years I’ve ransacked friends’ iTunes, but most of my acquiring of new music happens through purchases of CDs and records. I know lots of the sonic qualities of certain files have improved greatly over time but my priorities have never been about keeping up with that stuff.
That said, I am addicted to streaming the Grateful Dead live music archive hosted by Archive.org. Pretty much every concert the band ever played can be found there, often times in varying degrees of quality, ranging from sterile mixes from the band’s on-stage monitors to old audience recordings and matrix mixes – my favorite – which are re-mastered bootlegs that utilize the best parts of different recordings, so you can get a lot of the separation and clarity of a soundboard but also hear the venue’s ambiance, providing that “being there” experience. I’m a total sucker for the “Shows on this Day in History” feature.
Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
BP: This is hard, as I’m a Deadhead trying not to come off sounding like one (or at least not too much of one). Thinking along this line, which is my motivation while writing, the couplet that is haunting me is from “New Speedway Boogie”: “Please don’t dominate the rap Jack / if you got nothing new to say.” There has been plenty of ink spilled over the Dead, but what I’m planning on doing is taking a lot of that and putting it in a different context in order for readers to consider the band in ways that, hopefully, will be surprising.
As a fan, “Uncle John’s Band” is an anthem of sorts and gets me every time I listen to Workingman’s Dead (and I am listening all the way through several days per week currently). “Wo-oah what I want to know/how does the song go?” To some, this might reinforce everything not to like about the band: insert joke about forgetting lyrics. But in terms of understanding the Dead’s philosophy of music these lines go a long way. The Dead was never interested in dictating anything to its fans; it was always about sharing an experience through music. In this sense, the listener is as much a part of the song as the musicians, especially during concerts. Another good example of this concept can be found in “The Music Never Stopped” (from Blues for Allah): “People joinin’ hand in hand / while the music played the band.”